It's still Biden and Sanders jockeying for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Democratic presidential hopefuls, from left, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders arrive ahead of a Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2019.
Democratic presidential hopefuls, from left, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ahead of a Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2019.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — After a year of campaigning, six rounds of debates, countless TV ads and more candidate announcements and exits than we can remember, the 2020 Democratic presidential race has pretty much returned to where it started last year.

With Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on top.

An online CBS/YouGov poll of Iowa showed Biden, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg all tied in the Hawkeye State — with Elizabeth Warren in fourth place.

And a CBS/YouGov poll of New Hampshire also had Sanders and Biden in the lead in the Granite State — with Warren in third.

Now we’re not saying this is a two-person race.

Buttigieg can certainly win Iowa (and winning there can reverberate elsewhere). And Warren, while losing altitude in the past two months, is still well within striking distance.

But when you think about the candidates who are best positioned right now in the early states and nationally, who are set up to clear the 15 percent-threshold requirements to rack up delegates, and who have either tons of campaign cash (Sanders) or name ID (Biden) — it’s the two men in their late 70s.

And last night on CNN, you had Sanders going after Biden — reminiscent of the 2016 race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

“Joe Biden voted and helped lead the effort for the war in Iraq, the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said, per NBC’s Gary Grumbach. “Joe Biden voted for the disastrous trade agreements, like NAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China, which cost us millions of jobs. You think that's going to play well in Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania?”

Now when two men in their late 70s start fighting, that opens the door for Buttigieg, Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.

But the challenge for all three is that Biden-versus-Bernie crystallizes the current split inside the Democratic Party, including over the recent hostilities with Iran.

And that default choice — Obama-era pragmatism versus democratic socialism, public option versus Medicare for All, foreign-policy experience versus no more wars – could very well be the biggest gravitational force pulling us towards a showdown between Biden and Sanders.

Tweet of the day

How John Bolton revived the impeachment story

Maybe the biggest consequence from yesterday’s John Bolton news – that the former Trump national security adviser is willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial – is that he brought relevance back to the impeachment story.

Especially after Iran dominated the last 72 to 96 hours.

Bolton did what Democrats had been unable to do since the killing of Iran’s Soleimani – at least split the screen.

All that said, we’re not bullish on Bolton changing a lot of minds. And Senate Republicans did their best to downplay Bolton possibly testifying (see here, here and here).

Still, Bolton sure signaled that the impeachment story is eager and ready to return to center stage.

The latest news regarding Iran

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

“The funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian commander killed in an American airstrike, was postponed on Tuesday after upward of two dozen people died in a stampede crush, emergency services told state media,” per NBC News.

Senior Trump administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq “after President Trump publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops, according to three people briefed on the planning,” the Washington Post reports, adding that this sanctions discussion is still preliminary.

And Iranians and Iranian-Americans claim they were held and questioned by immigration authorities amid the hostilities between the United States and Iran, write NBC’s Laura Strickler, Daniella Silva and Rima Abdelkader.

2020 Vision: So fly – like a G6

NBC’s Garrett Haake reports that Bernie Sanders’ campaign has a plan to manage both attending Trump’s Senate impeachment trial and campaigning in Iowa before the caucus.

A private jet from DC to Iowa.

“‘They're not going to be meeting at night [for the trial], so we can obviously fly from D.C. to states and hold events in the evening and fly back, you know, so he can be back in the morning to do his work in the Senate,’ Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver told NBC News.”

“Sanders can also call upon a network of surrogates and endorsers with track records of drawing big crowds among progressives, most notably three members of ‘the Squad’ — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — who are now freed from their own impeachment duties in the House,” Haake adds.

On the campaign trail today

Joe Biden delivers a foreign-policy address in New York City… Elizabeth Warren holds an event in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Julian Castro… Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar stump in New Hampshire… Cory Booker campaigns in Iowa… And Michael Bloomberg is in Richmond, Va.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

Marianne Williamson sounds close to ending her presidential campaign. NBC’s Amanda Golden reports Williamson’s responses to concern about her campaign’s skeletal staff in New Hampshire: “’I came into this campaign wanting to be a contributor and that’s what our campaign has to ask,’ Williamson said. ‘At what point do you stop being a contributor and start being clutter, you know. And those are questions that obviously are way too hard at this time.’ Asked what he campaign schedule will look like for the next couple of days as she considers next steps, she said, ‘a lot of meeting with people.’”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 35 percent

35 percent.

That’s the share of Georgia voters who approve of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to appoint Kelly Loeffler to fill the state’s vacant Senate seat, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll. Another 29 percent disapprove, while 36 percent say they’re not sure.

Kemp’s decision to appoint Loeffler, a wealthy business executive and political novice, came despite worries from some Republicans about her conservative credentials. Trump loyalist Rep. Doug Collins hasn’t ruled out challenging her in the special Senate election later this year.

The Lid: Barn burner

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the state of play in the state of Iowa.

Shameless plug

And speaking of podcasts, don’t miss one of us chatting with NBC’s Steve Kornacki on how Congress is balancing impeachment and hostilities with Iran.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

What exactly happened with that “draft” letter signaling a troop withdrawal from Iraq?

John Bolton says he’s willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial if subpoenaed.

Mike Pompeo won’t run for Senate after all.

And Rep. Paul Gosar circulated a photoshopped image of Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani, who never met in person.

Trump Agenda: Iraq is back

The Washington Post writes that Iraq was once a “policy afterthought” for the Trump administration. That’s not the case anymore.

The chief of staff to the Defense Secretary is out.

2020: Warren grabs Castro’s endorsement

It’s official: Julian Castro is backing Elizabeth Warren.

More Democratic candidates could face the debate chopping block.

Are the primaries actually broken?

Biden picked up another endorsement in New Hampshire — this one from a former Republican U.S. senator.

Deval Patrick and his wife discuss her cancer diagnosis in his first TV ad.